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STEVE INSKEEP, host: Now, as Europe's debt crisis drags on, China has talked about buying Italian debt, but Chinese officials have made it clear they do not want to be the world's economic savior. That's been the message at an international economic forum being held this week in the Chinese city Dalian. NPR's Louisa Lim reports.

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LOUISA LIM: There was polite applause as Premier Wen Jiabao stepped onto the stage, but his words depressed markets in Europe, a sign of the shift in the centre of financial gravity. Wen said China is willing to extend a helping hand, but developed countries must do their bit. From Europe, he asked for recognition as a market economy. From the U.S., he hoped for more access for Chinese companies and moves to reduce the budget deficit. Here's Wen, speaking through an interpreter.

Premier WEN JIABAO: (Through translator) The fluctuations in the value of the U.S. dollar has resulted in the instability of commodity prices on international markets. New emerging markets are under inflationary pressure. Under these circumstances, the Chinese economy is closely linked with the global economy. Countries must first put their own house in order.

LIM: At another high-powered panel, Chinese investments in U.S. treasury debt were under the spotlight. In the U.S., corner: the new ambassador to Beijing, former Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. He's developed a reputation for modesty after being spotted trying to buy coffee with a discount voucher. This act sparked an online discussion about just how poorly the U.S. economy must be doing.

On stage, the moderator, a famous television anchor called Rui Chenggang, was determined to bring this up.

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RUI CHENGGANG: My colleagues told me that you flew coach - economy class - from Beijing to Dalian. Was that a reminder that U.S. still owes China money?

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Ambassador GARY LOCKE: Well, actually, that's a U.S. government policy, whether we're...

LIM: Locke parried that shot. But the other panelists, like advisor to the Chinese Central Bank, Li Daokui, were determined to remind him Washington literally owes Beijing big time.

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LI DAOKUI: The Chinese authorities, we are the most patient, probably the most cooperative investors in the world. Imagine if the $3.2 trillion U.S. dollar currency reserves is being controlled by Mr. George Soros. I'm sure he'd already been underselling U.S. treasury bonds. Your financial markets would be in much bigger chaos than it is.

LIM: Still, Li says, Beijing is waiting for reform of the U.S. highway, railway and postal sectors. So it can invest in those, too. Another panel member was even more blunt in his advice. As one of China's richest men, the opinion of real estate mogul Wang Jianlian carries weight.

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WANG JIANLIAN: Given the de facto devaluation of both the USD and the euro, I will stop buying treasury bonds. I will start buying natural resources or other physical investments.

LIM: He complained about lack of market access to Chinese investors, saying seven or eight American hotel groups had refused equity stakes from his company. Criticism appears to be mounting - even among these elites - of China's investments. But that doesn't seem to have changed its buying behavior, says Kenneth Jarrett. He's the former U.S. consul-general in Shanghai, and is now at Apco Worldwide.

KENNETH JARRETT: You have the irony of when these calls to stop buying treasury bills peaking, you also have peak periods of China actually purchasing treasury bills.

LIM: But on his recent trip here, Vice President Biden repeatedly compared American holdings of 69 percent of treasury bonds to Chinese holdings of just 8 percent. This could be a new strategy of downplaying Beijing's role as America's banker. But that new narrative is one that so far doesn't fit Beijing's playbook. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Dalian.

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